Enjoying Traditional San Sebastián
In the coastal town of San Sebastián—a resort for Spanish royals in the 19th century, now ruled by kings and queens of the new Basque cuisine—Luke Barr takes in stylish hotels, extravagant tasting menus, and the essential pleasures of real tradition.
The very first thing I put in my mouth exploded. There was a series of explosions, in fact, disorienting and strangely delicious, taking place as I swallowed a melon ball filled with sheep’s-milk cheese and…Pop Rocks? Smiling—actually amused by my “amuse-bouche”—I surveyed the room at Arzak, in San Sebastián, where the lunchtime crowd in the small, square space was buzzing in anticipation, ordering wine, waiting for the show to begin. And then came the lobster with powdered olive oil, re-liquefied with onion broth poured by the waiter, and the translucent, luminescent plate (battery-powered, maybe?) of roasted figs and pomegranate seeds, and the poached egg on top of an intensely flavorful square of crisp chicken skin and covered with a thin sheet of freeze-dried egg yolk, and a beautiful piece of tuna in bright-green cucumber sauce, and so on and so forth, through 11 courses, and after a while the mind boggles. Or mine did, helped along by a few glasses of Rioja Alta. Soon I was in a state of mild delirium, high on food and in awe of the wily ingenuity of the chefs, so eager to please and yet also to provoke, comforting you with rich, traditional Basque flavors while smacking you upside the head with some remarkable new texture or combination or foam-bubble extravaganza, and then stopping you cold with the most perfect and subtle and delicate fish or quail imaginable.
Trace elements of theater can be found in many a restaurant experience, but this was a full-blown opera buffa, all dramatic extravagance and outsize gestures and cosmic, libidinous pleasure. By the time we got to dessert—cold, soft marbles of liquid chocolate, roasted pineapple with corn ice cream, a glass of overflowing pineapple bubbles (something out of Roald Dahl)—bliss had descended on our table. I’ve never had a more entertainingly delicious meal.
At some point during lunch I noticed several Scandinavians at a nearby table taking loving snapshots of their plates, recording the meal for posterity. Arzak is that kind of restaurant—visited from afar, celebrated by connoisseurs. Not that I’m a connoisseur, exactly: no food photography for me. But I did come to eat. San Sebastián (or Donostia, in Basque) has long been known for its seafood and for the produce grown on lush, hilly farmland, and more recently as an epicenter of Spain’s new-wave cuisine, of molecular gastronomy, of Michelin-starred restaurants. Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli is 350 miles away on the Mediterranean, but it was here in Basque Country, on the Atlantic coast not far from the French border, that the first incarnation of the so-called nueva cocina vasca appeared in the 80’s.
There is a strong sense of optimism in the city, that after a rocky transition to democracy in the post-Franco era (the general died in 1975) and an extended struggle with the violent Basque separatist group ETA (which has called off the 2006 cease-fire but is generally considered a waning force in contemporary Spain), San Sebastián’s time has come. The small, wealthy city is in quiet transition, recapturing its glory days as the preferred summer resort of the Spanish aristocracy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and of Franco in the 50’s and 60’s. Today, it has been reawakened by the creativity and global, mediagenic appeal of its chefs and its astonishing food.
My wife has longtime, globally circuitous connections to San Sebastián: Yumi is Japanese and grew up in Tokyo attending an international school run by Spanish nuns; she spent summer after summer here as a kid and teenager, staying with the family of one or another of the sisters, reading Jane Austen novels and going to the beach and perfecting her Spanish. We would meet many of her family friends on this trip—nuns, and brothers and cousins and friends of nuns—all warm and welcoming, and eager to dote on our young daughter, Sachi, sitting outside at various cafés along the central Avenida de la Libertad or under the arcades around the Plaza de Guipúzcoa, or at a bar for a glass of wine and pintxos (Basque for tapas) among the pedestrian-only streets of the Parte Vieja (Old Town).
And San Sebastián is indeed the sort of town that seems custom-built for lingering outside, on the way to the beach or on the way to lunch, or on the way to nowhere at all. It’s a small city—population under 200,000—with an ambling, cosmopolitan air about it, a low-key sophistication that belies its size. The place is small and walkable, built at the mouth of the Río Urumea (traversed by a series of pretty bridges) and concentrated around the Bahía de la Concha and the broad and sandy beach that rings it. It is here, in 1888, that King Alfonso XII built the Palacio de Miramar, for years the summer residence of the royal family.
We’ve rented a small apartment in the former French consulate, one of the prettiest 19th-century buildings on the river. Friends from Zürich have come to visit, and we all wander along the tree-lined streets of the Centro, an area of town reminiscent of Haussmann’s Paris, with its Belle Époque architecture and many cafés and a grand neo-Gothic cathedral. In the medieval Parte Vieja, by contrast—only a 10-minute walk away—the streets are mazelike, with thick-walled buildings pressing up against stoic Romanesque churches and small bars and pintxos places all over.
We make our way to the beach on one of those summer mornings you look forward to all year long, crisp and glowing, promising a hot day but no humidity, freshness in the air. It takes a while to get there—we stop to buy beach towels and peruse the many shop windows, and to study an astounding variety of women’s shoes in great detail (not that I’m complaining). The shoe and clothing stores are large, modern places (mostly Spanish and Italian brands) set in grand old buildings, but every so often we pass a shop with nothing modern about it at all, like the one called Almacenes Arenzana, where we buy a few beautiful pale wooden cooking spoons and spatulas. It’s a high-ceilinged, old-world place that specializes in utensils, rope, and string—the single room is filled with spools of all sizes and smells faintly and pleasantly of twine. It feels as if it hasn’t changed in a century, immensely charming but not at all quaint.
Around the corner is a place that has changed, my wife points out, and lost a bit of its character—the Mercado de San Martín. Once the site of a vast and sprawling food bazaar with dozens of vendors set up in stalls, the building was renovated in 2005 and is now a supermarket with an attached shopping mall, and a few specialty food shops with gleaming display cases. We decide to stop on the way back for provisions.
Mid-morning, we arrive at the Playa de la Concha. It’s crowded: the beach in San Sebastián is fully integrated into the life of the city—everyone is here, all ages, locals and vacationers, families and couples, and buff middle-aged men strolling through the surf reading newspapers, oblivious to the streaking kids and beach balls all around them. The water is warm, perfect for swimming and for twirling three-year-olds by their hands in circles and splashing them into the waves. Around one o’clock the beach begins to empty out as people go home or retreat to restaurants up on the boardwalk for their long midday meals.
And this is how the days will go by: making cloudy, rich coffee in an unreliable stove-top espresso pot, eating fruit and bread and ham and cheese for breakfast. Reading the newspaper and attaching kids’ sandals to their feet, readying them for the beach. One evening we wander through the Parte Vieja, stopping at pintxos places like A Fuego Negro and La Cepa, popping morsels of fresh shrimp and marinated anchovy and crunchy fried salt cod in our mouths, our exhausted kids lolling about underfoot while we order more wine.
At Arzak, after our spectacular lunch, Elena Arzak—right hand to her chef father, Juan Mari Arzak, who trained in France with Paul Bocuse, among others—agreed to show me the restaurant’s test kitchen, where the menu’s pyrotechnics are invented and developed. She leads me up a narrow staircase to an apartment in the rear of the building. It’s calm and quiet, sunlight streaming in through an open window. This is where all the kitchen-as-chem-lab equipment can be found: a freeze-drier, a thermal immersion circulator for sous-vide cooking, a food dehydrator, an industrial-strength steamer, an aromatizer, a precision cutter, and other imposing devices. The lone, casually dressed chef in the kitchen is poking around at an orange-colored sauce, trying to come up with a new oyster preparation. He shakes his head ruefully—it’s not happening.
“You have to work a lot to get only a few results,” says Elena, “just like anything. There’s a limit to the technology—it’s only an aid.” She’s in her thirties, warm and down-to-earth, a far cry from the severe intellectual you’d expect to find making such highly engineered food. But the real secret to Arzak’s recipes isn’t the technology, she says, it’s the restaurant’s “flavor collection.” We head down the hall to a humidity-controlled room, where 1,500 herbs, spices, and preserved ingredients from all over the world are stored in small, transparent drawers. They’re catalogued by flavor on a computer. She hands me an Iranian lemon, dried until black in ground coffee for days—a traditional preservation method there. “Smell this,” she says. “This is a bank of ideas.”
We soon find ourselves eating at another of the renowned restaurants in San Sebastián, the Michelin three-starred Martín Berasategui—named for its chef—on the outskirts of town in Lasarte-Oria. It has views of green hills and farmland from a large stone terrace, where we repair periodically for breaks during the meal.
The lunch is a marathon: it lasts for hours. Our tasting menu presents itself as a “best of” compilation, and each item is listed proudly with the year it debuted. The “mille-feuille of smoked eel, foie gras, spring onions, and green apple” from 1995. The “green-tomato jelly with gray mullet roe, lemon and basil sherbet with olive juice and ginger and citric air,” from 2007. The “roast Araiz pigeon with cream of apple, lime, and basil” is also from 2007. It’s one knockout plate after another, though far more subdued—and less playful—than the meal at Arzak. And so is the atmosphere generally: the restaurant is hushed, and there are too many waiters standing around. Perhaps it is just a slow day, but the mood in the place is lugubrious, and it occurs to me that this elaborate, high-tech cooking—deconstructed, freeze-dried, and decorated with foam—can pretty easily go from brilliantly fresh to grandiose.
When I stop by Villa Soro, a stylish 25-room hotel opened in 2003 in a 19th-century estate not far from the center of town, the young American-Spaniard who runs it, Pablo Carrington, makes it clear that restaurants are driving his business. “Most of the guests were Spaniards when Villa Soro first opened,” he says. “Now—some nights we have seventy percent foreign guests, and we’re sending nine tables to Arzak.” As a result, Carrington is expanding: last year he opened the small Hotel Iturregi in nearby Getaria, and he has plans for another in Pamplona.
What’s going to happen, I wonder aloud to Carrington, when the hype about avant-garde Spanish cooking inevitably dies down?Will the renewed liveliness of the town fade away?But that’s not the problem as he sees it—just the opposite, in fact. If anything, the proliferation of stellar restaurants (San Sebastián alone has three three-star establishments, compared with nine for the whole of Germany) and global luxury brands is what threatens the character of the place. He’s uneasy, he says, about the chic-ification of the old food markets, and the disappearance of some of the smaller traditional restaurants. “And what about Almacenes Arenzana?”—the wooden-spoon and rope store we loved. “Will it still be here in ten years?Or instead be replaced by a Williams-Sonoma?”
It’s the old global homogenization phenomenon. A few days later I meet with the head of the San Sebastián Film Festival, Mikel Olaciregui, a bearded and jovial man who makes the related point that these days “every city has a film festival—and they’re all following the same movies.” San Sebastián, like Cannes and Venice, has been hosting a festival for more than 50 years, since 1999 in a striking Rafael Moneo–designed building on the waterfront downtown, a theater and event hall with shops and restaurants that’s lit up at night. Martín Berasategui has a satellite restaurant there. Around town, meanwhile, palm trees have been planted—universal symbols of the beach, but not native to San Sebastián.
Still, in spite of the inevitable modernizing forces, in spite of luxurious renovations and brand-name architects and a lot of very fancy cooking, San Sebastián’s traditional identity is strong, connected to the land and the sea. The region has long been a “privileged milieu” when it comes to ingredients, Berasategui says, “because of all the local producers—fishermen, ranchers, farmers,” and the older culinary traditions are still practiced in pintxos places, grills, cider houses, and traditional country restaurants. “Basque Country has no borders, but the cooking has roots,” he adds. “Our cuisine has sensitive, refined taste.”
A few days later, we rent a car and drive toward Getaria, a tiny fishing village 15 miles away. We are joined by old family friends, including a nun who spent most of her life in Tokyo but has now retired to San Sebastián, and her nephew, and they take us to the Museo Chillida-Leku, an outdoor sculpture park devoted to the work of the artist Eduardo Chillida. It’s a sparkling day, and we wander across the sloping lawn among the imposing stone and iron pieces, statements of Basque identity in their own abstract way. (The most famous of the artist’s sculptures is a semicircular work set in the rocks at the far end of the Concha beach, and you see its shape reproduced all over, as an emblem of the town.) Back in our cars, we continue out of town and down the coast, and are soon passing through fertile farmland, and then driving along the coast at the foot of rocky cliffs, rounding curves to find abrupt changes in scenery—bays, islands, fishing towns, lighthouses.
Our hotel—Carrington’s just-opened Iturregi—is set in the hilly vineyards outside Getaria and has only eight rooms. We can see the ocean in the distance from our window. It’s lunchtime, and because Iturregi does not have a full-service restaurant, the staff points us to San Prudencio, an old-style family place just down the road. It is here, outside on the terrace, that we have what may be the best meal of the entire trip—a perfectly timed antidote to three-star-cooking overload. The tomatoes in the tomato salad are from the garden out back, and they are ripe and perfect. We have langoustines roasted on a skewer, and magnificent, tender squid in its own ink, crusty ham croquettes, and, for our main course, roasted turbot. The white wine—a Txacoli, the local specialty—is from grapes grown right here. It’s ever so slightly effervescent. There’s nothing fancy about San Prudencio, and yet it’s a wonder of simple, traditional methods and local ingredients.
Getaria’s dock is active, full of fishing boats, and overlooking it are numerous fish restaurants, which all have large outdoor grills where the catch is cooked in oblong metal baskets over the white-hot coals. That evening, the steep, tiny roads down to the sea are crowded with locals talking loudly, drinking wine, and eating pintxos; kids riding bikes and skateboards; grandparents keeping an eye on things. We’re on our way to dinner at Kaipe, one of three famous fish places run by the same family. It’s eight o’clock, and the sun is setting.
On a whim, we push open the heavy door of the town’s 15th-century church, grand and simple at the same time, which straddles a few of the narrow streets. It’s dark inside, but a choir is singing. The church is empty, and obviously they’re practicing: every so often the singing pauses and a soloist will retry a section. We can’t see any of them—they’re in the choir loft just above us—but we can see the conductor’s arms giving time to the music, large shadows before us on the walls of the church. It’s a magical moment, and we sit in the pews quietly for a long time, listening. There’s a model ship hanging from the ceiling, another sign of the closeness and elemental role of the ocean here. Soon, we’ll be eating roasted squid and sea bream, but now we close our eyes.
Luke Barr is T+L’s news director.
When to Go
Like much of temperate coastal Europe, the weather in San Sebastián is nice from spring through fall.
There are no direct flights from the United States to San Sebastián; connect through Barcelona or Madrid on Spanair or Iberia.
Where to Stay
A Barcelona–based agency with a good selection of properties in San Sebastián.
Hotel María Cristina
A luxury hotel not far from the Centro Kursaal.
Hotel Monte Igueldo
A 125-room hostelry overlooking the town and bay.
Where to Eat
A Fuego Negro
Contemporary pintxos (tapas) bar in the Parte Vieja.
The place to go for perretxikos (wild mushrooms).
A 70-year-old pintxos bar specializing in Jabugo ham.
What to Do
Where to Shop
Stylish leather shoes.
This “concept store” is a design shop and hair salon that also sells clothing, books, and cosmetics.